Beyond inclusion: Creating affirming classrooms for d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing students

Blue background with yellow, red and black ands using sign language, text reads "listening to the Deaf community"
Image credit: Kent State University Magazine

Elspeth Slayter, MSW, MA, PhD, Salem State University

Cate Thomas, BSW, GradCertLearn&TeachHigherEd, GradDipPA, MPAdmin, PhD, Charles Sturt University

We often have d/Deaf[1] and hard-of-hearing students in our university student bodies, but they can, at times, feel excluded from their educational environments. Therefore, it is important for faculty to create d/Deaf-affirming spaces as opposed to just providing disability inclusion. We need to recognize that hearing access is an implicit requirement for classroom-based learning. Most professors don’t consider how much hearing access matters until they are working with a d/Deaf or hard-of-hearing student. So, what barriers do d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing students face, and how can we best prepare to ameliorate them?

Let’s start with classroom interactions. Once in the classroom, the most obvious issue is the student’s use of an interpreter[2]. One or two interpreters may be present to support the student, depending on the length of the class session. Some students speak American Sign Language, but there are many other languages, such as Black Sign Language and Brazilian Sign Language. Not all interpreters are fluent in all of these languages. Students may have American Sign Language as a second language. Regardless of language, all communications with the student should be directed directly to the student, and not to the interpreter, out of respect for the student. One issue that comes up from time to time is the way that d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing students participate in classroom discussions. As they cannot hear exactly when another student starts or stops talking, they may enter into the conversation in a manner that may feel abrupt. Additionally, d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing students may not engage at all by virtue of space/positioning, because they are not aware of what is occurring in the classroom. This is just part of the territory that needs to be gotten used to. In our experience, d/Deaf and hard-of hearing students often face social problems in the classroom as well, such as lack of connection with other students, disability microaggressions, and active ableism. This is especially problematic during class breaks when they are ignored and in small group work. Professors can model d/Deaf/hard-of-hearing affirming behavior for the rest of the classroom, while honoring the principles of disability etiquette (Pulrang, 2020).

Another central area for fostering a d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing affirming space relates to faculty positioning in the classroom. If d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing people are lip-reading, for example, they need to be able to see the faculty member’s face when they are at the board, or walking around the room. Faculty need to be attentive to this. This may mean the faculty member making the use of technology and streaming themselves to desktops by way of a portable head mounted camera and the use of other affordances.  Videos and screencasts are also an issue. All videos and screencasts used in class need to use closed captions. When recording lectures for the flipped classroom technique, for example, it is important to make using captions a consistent habit. Websites for assignments that use videos may often be inaccessible if they do not provide closed captions or a transcript – this needs to be assessed by the instructor ahead of time so that accommodations can be made. These are vitally important to ensure a positive student experience and engagement on all levels.

In summary, professors should be aware of hearing access barriers and act on them ahead of time, taking initiative in creating d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing affirming spaces, including when guest lecturers are present. Asking d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing students “what has worked for you in the past to make this class work?” is a great place to start. Communicating with Disability Services about how to best accommodate an individual is vital, as is being open to constructive feedback. Central to this work is being self-aware of unintended ableist attitudes and behaviors. d/Deaf pride is a well-documented phenomenon, and many, but not all, are happy not to be ‘fixed’ with cochlear implants. Most importantly, d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing students don’t want to be anyone’s inspiration, they just want to fit in. Please take this information and use it to create a universally-designed classroom for the next time you have a d/Deaf or hard-of-hearing student in your roster! From a structural and systemic viewpoint, universal curricula and pedagogical design should be a common denominator for all students and based on authentic co-design with students.

Pulrang, A. (January 17, 2020). It’s time for a reimagining of disability etiquette. Forbeshttps://www.forbes.com/sites/andrewpulrang/2020/01/17/its-time-for-a-reimagining-of-disability-etiquette/?sh=4f99cb33d6d8


[1] According to Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, in Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture (1988): “We use the lowercase deaf when referring to the audiological condition of not hearing, and the uppercase Deaf when referring to a particular group of deaf people who share a language – American Sign Language (ASL) – and a culture.  The members of this group have inherited their sign language, use it as a primary means of communication among themselves, and hold a set of beliefs about themselves and their connection to the larger society.  We distinguish them from, for example, those who find themselves losing their hearing because of illness, trauma or age; although these people share the condition of not hearing, they do not have access to the knowledge, beliefs, and practices that make up the culture of Deaf people.”

[2] Interpreting and translating are related but are different activities. Interpreters work between spoken language and sign language. Translators work from text into sign language.

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